Text messaging – or SMS – was arguably the killer app that made mobile phones a must-have in the 1990s. Messaging has moved on a great deal since then – we’ve had MMS, WhatsApp, Snapchat and dozens of richer messaging services, but old-school SMS has remained a fixture on our phones. Until now, when it’s finally about to be superseded by RCS messaging.
RCS stands for Rich Communication Service and Google is about to turn it on for Android users in the UK. So what does RCS do? And will it become the new SMS? Let’s find out.
What can RCS do?
RCS has several features that you’ve already grown used to with other messaging services, must notably Apple’s iMessage and WhatsApp.
It’s not limited to bald text messages. You can send text of indeterminate length, of course, but you can also include photos, videos, GIFs and stickers.
RCS supports read receipts, so you’ll know if someone’s read your message – no more ‘didn’t have a signal’ when you’re hiding in the pub after work. You’ll also be able to see when someone’s typing a reply.
Group chats are supported too, in much the same way you can have three-, four-or-more-way conversations on WhatsApp.
What’s more, it won’t be reliant on the cellular network. RCS data can be sent over the internet, so if you genuinely are stuck in a basement with no signal, but have access to Wi-Fi, you’ll still be able to read your messages.
How will I get RCS messaging?
RCS has been in the planning for more than a decade, but it seems Google has lost patience with the mobile industry. Instead, it’s taking matters into its own hands.
Later this month, Android users in the UK and France will be given the option to turn on RCS, whether their phone network supports it or not.
When it’s switched on, users will be given the option to upgrade to RCS Chat when they open the Messages app on their phones, according to this detailed report on The Verge.
It will be specifically marked as Chat within the Messages app, which will still support the sending of old SMS messages at the same time – it’s not one or the other.
You can only send RCS chat messages to other Android users who have it switched on. To check, your phone will send an invisible message to recipients to check they have RCS before delivering the first message to them.
Will RCS messaging work with iPhones?
Not at the present time. Apple is reportedly in talks with the GSMA – the mobile phone standards body – about supporting RCS, but it’s not supported on any current generation iPhones.
Apple, of course, has iMessage – a similar rich messaging service that’s only available to iOS users. It won’t be in any hurry to support RCS unless it becomes a pain point for its customers.
Are RCS messages encrypted?
Yes. And no. The messages are encrypted in transit, but it’s not full end-to-end encryption like you get with WhatsApp.
What does that mean? It means the provider – in this case Google – can theoretically read messages and hand them over to the authorities, if forced to do so.
Google is clearly wary that people will see this as a privacy downgrade from WhatsApp, so it’s making an unusual pledge. Google says it will delete messages from its server as soon as they are delivered to your phone. (Google has to store messages that can’t be sent to your phone because it’s switched off or doesn’t have a data signal).
There are notable exceptions to this. Multimedia files (photos, videos etc) might be retained for longer because Google needs to ensure all recipients have downloaded the file before it can wipe the data. Metadata (such as the phone numbers of the people exchanging messages, which is often requested by security services) will also be stored, albeit temporarily, according to The Verge.
Will RCS be as secure as WhatsApp? No. In the end, it boils down to how much you trust Google. Given most folk already have a Gmail account and have vast chunks of personal data stored by Google, I suspect that won’t be a huge barrier.
Are there any downsides to RCS?
Some might regard Google taking control of another messaging protocol as a worrying sign. The company already dominates web search and webmail, Android is by far and away the biggest phone operating system, and now it’s trying to wrest control of mobile messaging. A phrase involving fingers and pies springs to mind.
Google will also sell this rich messaging client to advertisers. It’s already announced it’s working with advertisers to create interactive ads like the one featured below.
Be still my beating heart.
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